Dartford 0 Chippenham Town 1
National League South
A few years ago, I used to get sent to Dartford a fair bit.
It wasn’t a punishment or anything like that, it was merely because we had our Training Centre on the back of an industrial estate, and from time to time I had to go down to carry out some work for them.
It proved quite handy from a football perspective, as from my base at the Dartford Bridge Hilton I was able to get to exciting places like Colchester United and Gillingham, but it never fell when the mighty Darts were at home at Princes Park.
With some time to kill on one mission, I did have a spin over to the relatively new home of Dartford Football Club, and remembered the ‘wooden’ feel to the eco-stadium, but to be fair, oiks like me were never going to be allowed a free run of the place on a non-match day, so I had to be content at peering through the gaps in the walls.
I’m a bit too young to be able to claim to have visited the old ground on Watling Street, the ill-fated venue that ended up being used by both the Darts, and Maidstone United, when they became a Football League club. My only memory of it, other than seeing old photos in Tony Williams Non-League Grounds books, was the commentary on BBC Radio Derby as Burton Albion won 2-0 in 1987 to reach the Final of the FA Trophy.
Make no mistake about it Dartford are, and indeed have always been, a serious non-league football club.
A Southern League side since the War, they won the title in 1973-74, and then again in 1980-81, which in turn saw them promoted to the relatively young Alliance Premier League. This only lasted for one season, but within two further seasons they were back again as champions, this time surviving in the top flight twice as long as before.
They Nineties proved to be a pivotal and ultimately critical period for the club. The ground share with Maidstone commenced in 1988, and with it came the short spell in the Football League for the Stones. Of course, it went inevitably wrong, the club went bankrupt, and the debt the club had built to pay for ground improvements was passed on to the Darts.
The debt was just too vast for Dartford, they sold Watling Street in 1992 to pay off creditors, and just four games into the 1992-93 season they withdrew from the league.
The club reformed, starting in the Kent League, initially sharing at Cray Wanderers, and then Erith & Belvedere. They won the league in 1996 and that bought about a welcome return to the Southern League.
A fire at Erith saw them move in with Purfleet at Ship Lane, and as we moved into the Noughties the clubs new base became Stonebridge Road, the home of Gravesend & Northfleet. Finally though, work commenced on building a new stadium back in Dartford, and in November 2006, now an Isthmian League club, they played their opening game in front of over 4,000 spectators.
As often happens, the new ground bought about an upturn in fortunes, and two promotions later, they took up a place in the Conference South at the start of the 2010-11 season. Two years later and they were in the top flight, for the first time in nearly thirty years. They survived for three seasons before being relegated back to what is now known as the National League South, where they remain to this day.
The FA Cup has only seen a couple of post war victories against Football League sides. Those being against Aldershot and Exeter City, while the in the FA Trophy, as well as the Burton semi-final defeat, they’ve also lost to Macclesfield Town and Grimsby Town at the same stage, although in 1974 they did reach the Final at Wembley, only to lose to Morecambe.
So, there we have the history, and I guess it’s really a tale of a clubs sudden demise, but then one of hard work and dedication to keep going, rebuild, persevere to find a new home, and take the club back to a better level than previously.
Princes Park has been on the radar since before Christmas, what with the 92 (now 91) completed, it was time to have a crack at the National League. I’d planned it well in advance, courtesy of a cheap tickety-split deal, only this time I’d managed to get the fast Virgin train to Euston at dirt cheap prices.
The capital was reached by 10am, and after a very short tube journey to Charing Cross, it was onto the regular service to Dartford that took around 45 minutes. A journey that goes past Millwall’s New Den, before heading out into Kent via Blackheath and Eltham, and finally through Welling and Bexleyheath.
Once in Dartford it was raining, so it was a quick sprint over the footbridge, through the shopping centre and into the planned destination of the local Wetherspoons. I like a good Wetherspoons, and this was a happy place in my World, Carling was just £2.65 a snifter, and compared to most prices inside the M25, this is probably as good as it gets.
The walk to Princes Park takes about twenty minutes, involving a stroll down a bus lanr to the South of the town, and then over the lights and up by the side of the David Lloyd Centre. Having seen the club publicising that they were opening up at 12.30pm so punters could go into the bar to watch the Spurs v Huddersfield game, I decided to time my arrival for around 1.30pm to take advantage.
The first thing that strikes you about the environmentally friendly stadium is the fact that the exterior is made almost entirely of wood. From the back of the four stands, through to the façade of the impressive club buildings that adjoin the main stand.
Once in through the turnstiles behind the West goal, round to the right is the main stand where the seats run along the front, with the walkway that circumnavigates the entire stadium running to the rear, while the clubhouse sits behind. The remaining three sides are terraced, but it’s worth pointing out a couple of the more quirky features.
Opposite the main stand, at the back of the terracing is a wooden sculpture of a giant man, while the stand roofs are effectively living structures (grass) that provide a natural air filtration system. They also have solar panels, and a water recycling system. It may have cost a reported £7 million to build, but Dartford claim to have one of the most ecologically sound stadiums ever built.
Dartford are in play-off contention, while visitors Chippenham were comfortably mid-table. In front of a crowd of just over 1,000, Dartford suffered an early blow when legendary striker Elliot Bradbrooke, who announced he is to retire at the end of the season, left the field injured, he may well not play again this season, which is such a sad way to go out if it is the case.
The first half saw Dartford have plenty of the ball, but Chippenham were well organised and resolute. Chances were at a premium, and the game followed a similar pattern in the second period, however Adriel George pounced in the 78th minute for the visitors to make it 1-0, somewhat against the run of play.
Dartford threw everything at it in the closing stages but simply could not break through. It hadn’t been their day, and consequently dropped out of the play-off places as other results went against them.
It hadn’t been the greatest spectacle on the pitch, but they often aren’t at this stage of the season with so much at stake, that said, they were a super friendly and hospitable club, and on that basis alone, I would love to see them succeed in the play-off lottery.
The journey back was as straightforward as it was going down, and as always, it finished in the Royal George at Euston, which tends to be a meeting point for supporters of so many clubs heading back to the Midlands and the North West after a game in London.
We’ve closed the Training Centre in Dartford now, which is a shame as it was a handy base for the football. So when the trips to Dartford based VCD Athletic and Phoenix Sports fall onto the radar next season, I might have to start checking the train timetables again………